Liberators: The Yugoslav Airmen in the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II

By Carl Savich

In June, 1942, King Peter II of Yugoslavia began an official state visit to the United States to seek military and humanitarian aid for the Yugoslav guerrillas led by Draza Mihailovich. In Washington, DC, Peter spoke before the U.S. House of Representatives and attended a dinner at the White House as a guest of the President. As part of the negotiations then and subsequently, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pledged to give four Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers to the exiled Yugoslav Government to help the Chetnik resistance forces in German-occupied Yugoslavia.

Forty Yugoslav airmen would fly combat missions as a Yugoslav detachment as part of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II.

The story of the Yugoslav airmen who flew with the U.S. Army Air Force began in April, 1941. When Yugoslavia surrendered to Germany, there was a group of Yugoslav pilots who managed to escape capture. The Royalist Yugoslav Air Force fleet consisted of British-made Blenheim aircraft, Italian-made Savoia-Marchetti medium bombers, the German-made Dornier Do 17 light bomber, and the U.S.-made commercial Lockheed 10 models. Peter and his staff escaped from Yugoslavia aboard a Savoia-Marchetti which was flown to a British base in Paramythia in northwestern Greece on April 14, 1941. From here, the airmen were able to fly King Peter II and the members of the cabinet to Cairo, Egypt after German forces seized BelgradeFour Savoia Marchetti aircraft escaped by flying to airfields in Ukraine and the Black Sea in the Soviet Union. The Yugoslav Royal Government had a pact of friendship and alliance with the USSR. Joseph Stalin had signed the agreement in Moscow just days before the German invasion. A crew of 23 Yugoslav men were taken to Moscow where they remained in limbo for four months. This was because Yugoslavia had ceased to exist as a nation. A Yugoslav Government-In-Exile would be established in London. Stafford Cripps, the British Ambassador to the USSR, was able to secure their transfer to British forces in August, 1941. The total number of exiled Yugoslav airmen of approximately 300 men joined the British Royal Air Force in the Middle East. Cairo, Egypt was a major British base. Moreover, King Peter and his cabinet transferred the headquarters of the Yugoslav Government-In-Exile from London to Cairo on September 28, 1943, only months before the arrival of the airmen.

A total of 40 exiled Yugoslav airmen stationed in Egypt were chosen to fly the four Liberator bombers as part of the U.S. Air Force, 26 officers and 14 enlisted men, consisting of former Yugoslav Royal Air Force pilots, navigators, and mechanics.

The training of the airmen had begun when Peter visited the Smyrna Training School in Tennessee on Thursday, July 23, 1942. Peter, accompanied by Constantin Fotich, met with Major General Barton K. Yount, Colonel Thomas J. Betts, the U.S. Military Aide to Peter during his U.S. visit, Colonel W.W. Welsh, and Colonel Stanley M. Umstead, the commander of the Smyrna Training School. Peter met with the Yugoslav airmen with Colonel Dragutin Savich, the Chief of the Yugoslav Military Mission to the U.S. Savich had negotiated the 1941 Soviet-Royalist Yugoslav Friendship Pact in Moscow with Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov.

The airmen were dispersed for training to military bases in the United States in November, 1942. Their military training began in December at the gunnery school at the base east of Ft. Myers in Florida. They were then sent to training bases in Salinas, California. They finished their training in August, 1943 at the Blythe base also in California.

Fotich wanted the airmen to fly as a separate Yugoslav unit. Instead, they were supposed to receive commissions and be incorporated into the U.S. Army Air Force. Fotich worked to have this changed. On June 28, 1943, he contacted the Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles. On July 28, he contacted Assistant Secretary Adolf Berle. Fotich filed a memorandum on August 3 and called on Welles on August 11 and contacted the State Department on August 14. The issue was eventually discussed by President Roosevelt, Bill Donovan of OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, General Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General, U.S. Army Air Forces, General George C. Marshall, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, and Admiral William D. Leahy, the Chief of Staff to the President. Donovan was able to convince them to create a separate Yugoslav detachment.

On September 7, the Yugoslav Ambassador called on Roosevelt and asked him to make the presentation of the four Liberators “personally, with an appropriate ceremony, instead of sending the Yugoslav airmen in a routine way to their new assignment.” FDR was “very interested” as was Harry Hopkins.

The presentation ceremony was held at Bolling Field, Washington D.C., on October 6, 1943. President Roosevelt and Ambassador Fotich were in attendance. The four Liberator bombers were lined up in the background with the airmen standing at attention in rows. Both President Roosevelt and Fotich spoke at the ceremony using stand-up microphones.

President Roosevelt watched from his automobile as the four-engine Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers were dedicated and turned over to the first Yugoslav combat unit in the U.S. Army Air Forces. Constantin Fotich spoke at a microphone positioned near the hood of the car on the far left. U.S. Army Major General Barney M. Giles, Chief of Staff, Army Air Forces, also spoke at the ceremony. Major Milivoje Misovic or Mishovich was in the front of the assembled Yugoslav airmen. Because of his polio, Roosevelt was only able to move around in a wheelchair or with crutches. He spoke from his Packard Twelve convertible limousine which had the top down using a microphone which had been placed beside the car.

“Mr. Ambassador, General Giles, members of the first Yugoslav air force trained in this country:

I am very happy to take part in this most interesting ceremony. I am happy also that you gentlemen are going to wear as members of the Yugoslav air force the wings of the United States air force.

May these planes fulfill their mission under your guidance. They are built with two great objectives. The first is to drop bombs on our common enemy successfully and at the right points. The second is to deliver to your compatriots in Yugoslavia the much-needed supplies for which they have waited for so long — food, medicine — yes, arms and ammunition.

And so you fare forth on one of the greatest odysseys of this war. I count on you to bear yourselves well. And I am sure you will have every success in this great mission that you are undertaking. Remember always that we are comrades in arms.”

General Barney M. Giles pinned wings on the airmen and spoke at the ceremony: “They will fly from airdromes in North Africa and from our newly-won bases in Italy which adjoin their homeland. They will drop supplies to their fighting countrymen and engage in combat in their native skies. … [T]hey symbolize Yugoslavia’s determination to continue the fight until victory has been achieved.” He commended their commander, Major Milivoje Mishovich. Mishovich and the Yugoslav pilots were given U.S. Army Air Force wings.

In his speech to the Yugoslav airmen which he had cleared by the U.S. State Department, Fotich told them that “they would have the privilege of carrying supplies to Mihailovich and his courageous fighters.” By this time, Allied support for Draza Mihailovich was waning. The British Government was putting increasing pressure on the U.S. to abandon Mihailovich. Fotich’s statement of support for Mihailovich was, however, allowed to stand.

The four bombers were assigned to the 376th Bombardment Group based in the Middle East. The day after the ceremony, they flew out to the Middle Eastern Theater of Combat.

Following the presentation of the four B-24 Liberator bombers by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Bolling Field in Washington, DC, on October 6, 1943, the aircraft were flown to Cairo, Egypt the next day where they were presented to Peter II.

The Yugoslav government had moved from London to Cairo on September 28, 1943. The Greek government in exile was already based there. Peter had proposed the move in a letter to Winston Churchill on March 31, 1943. The government was now headed by Bozidar Puric after the resignation of Slobodan Jovanovic in July, 1943. Lincoln MacVeagh was appointed the new U.S. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Yugoslavia and to Greece on November 12, 1943 after the move to Cairo, replacing Anthony Biddle.

Peter thought that the “likelihood of an Allied landing in Yugoslavia to be strong” in early 1943. The move of the exile Yugoslav government from London to Cairo “seemed to me to be the first step back to Yugoslavia”. He felt that the time for “action” had come and was “ready to give the whole of my energies” to the effort. On March 31 he wrote a letter to Winston Churchill about the proposed move to Cairo. Peter also proposed to Churchill that he be parachuted into Yugoslavia to join up with Draza Mihailovich’s troops. In his view, this would be “of great moral help” and would contribute to “rally all resistance forces in the country”.

Churchill replied on April 15 stating that he saw the move to Cairo as a good plan that would encourage Yugoslav troops there and the people in Yugoslavia as well. Churchill did not, however, support Peter’s plan to return to Yugoslavia, arguing that he should wait until liberation and then return.

British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden informed the Yugoslav cabinet that a major offensive was being planned and that landings in Yugoslavia were “under preparation”. Eden also suggested that the government should move to Cairo. Peter agreed. Peter had been considering this earlier and saw the move as “more effective action” on the part of himself and the government. He saw the liberation of Yugoslavia as imminent.

The Croat Banovina issue, however, divided the government. Vice-President Juraj Krnjevic, a Croat member, refused to go to Cairo until the Banovina issue was resolved. There was thus a divide between the Serbian and Croatian members of the government.

Peter set off for Cairo by ship from Liverpool. He arrived at Port Said in Egypt from where he set off along the Suez Canal by car to Cairo.

When he arrived at the airport, Peter was welcomed by Major General Ralph Royce, Commanding General, USAFIME, at the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers presentation ceremony held at John Payne Airport, Cairo, Egypt, in October, 1943. Peter was photographed exiting a car with insignia on the door of the Yugoslavian Royal Air Force. The B-24 Liberator bombers were assigned to the 376th Bomber Group of the U.S. Army Air Force, to be flown by Yugoslavian flight crews. The Yugoslav detachment was under the command of the U.S. Army Air Force. It was attached to a B-24 Liberator squadron of the 15th American Air Force. The Yugoslav detachment was integrated into the American squadron with the Yugoslav airmen living and flying together with the American crews.

John Payne Field was developed by the USAAF as an air base for the Air Transport Command in 1943 located 13 miles east of Cairo. The land was obtained from the RAF. The U.S. Air Force in the Middle East (USAFIME) was based in Cairo, Egypt, originally set up by General George C. Marshall in 1942 during the Egypt and Libya operations in North Africa.

The Royal Yugoslav Air Force (RYAF) crews were assigned to the 376 Bomber Group (BG)/512 Bomber Squadron (BS) in October, 1943. This detachment of the Yugoslav Air Force continued to operate under the operational control of the North-West African Air Forces and flew on equal terms with American bombers.

An inspection tour was part of the presentation ceremony of the Liberator bombers. The Yugoslav detachment was under the command of the U.S. Army Air Force. It was attached to a B-24 Liberator squadron of the 15th American Air Force. The Yugoslav detachment was integrated into the American squadron with the Yugoslav airmen living and flying together with the American crews.

The presentation ceremony was featured in a British War Pictorial News newsreel, November 15, 1943, No. 132. The film segment was entitled “Egypt” with commentary by Rex Keating.

The national flags of the United States and Yugoslavia were shown at Heliopolis Airport in Cairo during the aircraft presentation ceremony attended by King Peter II of Yugoslavia and Major-General Ralph Royce, Commander United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in the Middle East. A USAAF guard of honor was shown standing at attention armed with M1903 Springfield .30-in rifles and holstered M1911A1 .45-in automatic pistols.

King Peter is shown getting out of an official 4X2 Ford 21A Light Sedan automobile accompanied by Major-General Royce. A parked and chocked Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber can be seen in the background. The bomber is equipped with an Emerson defensive nose turret. No national markings are visible.

Peter delivered his acceptance speech from a free-standing podium in thanks for the generous presentation of four Liberator bombers to the Yugoslavian people by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Peter was shown speaking to a Royal Yugoslavian Air Force aircrew officer, part of the team of ferry pilots who collected the aircraft from the United States.

Peter and Major-General Royce posed for photographs in the defensive waist gun position of a B-24. The air-cooled .50-in Browning heavy machine gun is not mounted and has been stowed away prior to the aircraft’s ferry flight.

Peter and Major-General Ralph Royce were photographed as Peter arrived at the airport. The American national anthem was played at the start of the ceremony.

Peter was photographed reading his acceptance speech behind a microphone at the air field. Behind him were Major-General Royce and the American and Yugoslav officers.

American troops of the U.S. 835 Engineer Battalion were photographed passing in review before King Peter II of Yugoslavia and U.S. Major General Ralph Royce, Commanding General of USAFIME, at the B-24 Liberator bomber presentation ceremony in Cairo, 1943. Both Peter and General Royce were shown saluting the troops.

Peter was photographed in the cockpit of a U.S. Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber at John Payne Airport in Cairo, Egypt, 1943. King Peter of Yugoslavia was photographed in the pilot seat of B-24J 42-73085 for a briefing during acceptance ceremonies for Yugoslavian flight crews of the 376th BG at Cairo Airport.

The RYAF Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers flew as #20 through #23. #23 was the only one to survive the war. The planes were manned by Yugoslav crews with an American crewman as part of the team. The insignia of the Royal Yugoslavian Air Force was painted on the side of the aircraft left of the number “23”. The insignia of the 512th Squadron was on the right, a skull in front of propellers.

Peter described the Cairo ceremony in his account from the 1954 autobiography A King’s Heritage (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1954):

“Earlier in the year [1943] ten Liberator (B-24’s) had been presented to members of the Yugoslav forces in Washington by President Roosevelt in person. Our men subsequently flew these planes to Cairo and as I was there at the time yet another ceremony was held, at which General Ralph Royce and [U.S.] Ambassador [to Egypt, Alexander] Kirk presented me with these planes officially.”

Peter had envisioned the role of the planes as supplying and supporting Draza Mihailovich and his guerrilla troops. The bombers were used instead on missions outside of Yugoslavia:

“I had hoped that they would be used in Yugoslavia to help Mihailovich. However, this was not to be their function. We were informed that as part of the Mediterranean Command they were vitally needed elsewhere. These planes were stationed at Foggia in Italy and were used in the first bombing of the Ploeshti oil fields, and later to raid Munich. Less than half of them came back.”

There was to be a leaflet-dropping sortie using the Liberator bombers. The British Foreign Office objected and prevented this because of the designation of “High Command of the Yugoslav Army”. This was seen as recognizing Draza Mihailovich’s guerrilla headquarters. This was in November, 1943. The Foreign Office was concerned that Tito and the Communist Partisans would be offended. The U.S. State Department was notified. The U.S. ambassador was advised that “further gifts of this character might best be avoided”. The U.S. Office of War Information in Washington agreed that leaflets “issued independently by the Yugoslav government should not be dropped by Yugoslav aviators acting on their own initiative and under their own direction”. The OWI stated that it did not want to do anything that might antagonize “one of the bravest and most effective fighting groups in occupied Europe, namely the PLA”. The PLA was the People’s Liberation Army, Tito’s Communist Partisans. It was initially recommended to issue the leaflets in Peter’s name. But this too was rejected after the British ambassador opposed it.

The Yugoslav Communist Partisans under Josip Broz Tito immediately voiced their opposition to the granting of the bombers. On the Free Yugoslavia radio station, Josip Broz Tito and Ivan Ribar attacked the presentation of the four Liberator bombers by FDR as a “blunder” because they assumed they would be going to Draza Mihailovich. “Resent ‘Gift’ of Bombers”, The Milwaukee Journal, October 19, 1943, page 2. This was what Peter and Constantin Fotich wanted. FDR was somewhat ambiguous on this point. In fact, they were not used to supply and support the guerrillas under Draza Mihailovich.

On November 2, 1943, Peter sent a cable to FDR, thanking him for the bombers, stating that the Liberators are “truly magnificent machines”. Peter wrote: “I take this opportunity to renew my personal and my people’s warmest thanks to you Mr. President and to the American nation for this generous gift.”

The arrival of Peter and his government to Cairo was also featured in a British Movietone News newsreel, “Personalities: King Peter — Lord Wavell”, October 21, 1943. King Peter of Yugoslavia was shown exiting out of a car, greeted by Mr. Richard G. Casey, UK Minister of State, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas, at Cairo, Egypt. He was the Air Officer Commanding in Chief of RAF Middle East Command in January, 1943. Also present was British Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, whom Peter also was shown greeting. The group was shown walking into the camera. King Peter was shown on steps saluting.

Peter met with King Farouk, King George II of Greece, and General Bernard Montgomery in Egypt. He had discussions with all three. Monty informed him that a Salonika front as in World War I was “impossible” because “it was too long and too difficult to approach” and was unnecessary because the Allies had established a landing in Italy.

Peter also met with FDR during the Cairo Conference of November 22-26. Puric and Peter were invited to Alexander Kirk’s residence. “I thanked him for handing the B-24s to our contingent in Washington — the first real aid we had received from the U.S. Air Force.” Peter asked him about a possible Allied landing in Yugoslavia. FDR was vague. Peter argued that the Allies should attack the “soft underbelly” in the Balkans as an ideal target. FDR vehemently disagreed. FDR believed that Germany should be attacked in France. This was where Germany was strongest. Moreover, France was a steadfast and longstanding ally of the U.S. Most importantly, FDR still supported Draza Mihailovich at this time according to Peter. FDR wanted the rival guerrilla groups to divide the country into a western and eastern zone. FDR wanted to reconcile or unite the Partisan and Chetnik guerrilla movements and said it was possible. Puric, however, disagreed.

At the Teheran Conference held from November 28 to December 2, 1943, the Allies recognized Tito. Peter recalled: “Mihailovich was thus denied and abandoned.”

The Yugoslav Detachment would fly missions over Greece, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia as part of the U.S. Army Air Force in 1943 and 1944.

On November 8, 1943, the Yugoslav air crews were attached to the 376th Bombardment Group, under Colonel Keith Compton, stationed in Enfidaville, Tunisia. The four planes were part of the 512th Squadron of the 15th U.S. Army Air Force. They began training missions on November 11 and participated in a bombing raid over France which was cancelled due to weather conditions. The planes were numbered 20, 21, 22, and 23. They had the Royal Yugoslav Air Force insignia and the U.S. Army Air Force star and bar symbols on the fuselage.

After a week of training the Yugoslav crews flew their first combat mission on November 15 to strike the Eleusis Airport, a German air base since 1941, located outside of Athens. The attack formation consisted of 52 other aircraft. The air field sustained severe damage in the attack by 46 B-24 Liberator bombers with an escort of Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter planes. Sixty tons of fragmentation bombs were dropped which damaged hangars and fuel stores. Six German aircraft were reported destroyed on the ground.

The group was stationed in San Pancrazio, Italy thereafter. The base was located approximately two and half miles northeast of San Pancrazio Salentino in the province of Brindisi in Apulia, southwest of Brindisi, on the south-east Italian coast. The base was south of Bari, where the headquarters of Fifteenth Air Force would be located, in the heel of the Italian boot. The airfield was constructed in 1943 by U.S. Army Engineers primarily for the use by the Fifteenth Air Force. This B-24 Liberator heavy bomber base was used in the strategic bombing of Germany. San Pancrazio was also used by tactical aircraft of Twelfth Air Force in the Italian Campaign.  The 376th Bombardment Group was assigned to the air base from November 17, 1943 to April 19, 1945, consisting of B-24 Liberator bombers as part of the Fifteenth Air Force heavy bomber base.

The second mission occurred on November 24 against targets in Sofia, Bulgaria. Two detached bombers participated, Number 22 and Number 23. The crew also consisted of one American, George Cale They attacked the railroad marshaling yards in Sofia which was seen as a key Axis communication and supply center in the southeastern European theater. After their successful bombing runs, they were attacked by pairs of Messerschmitt fighter planes. Tail gunner Vaso Benderach of Number 22 brought one of the pursuing planes down but the bomber had sustained severe damage. The plane caught on fire and spiraled out of control after one of the wings broke off. The crew was able to all safely bail out as the plane crashed over Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia. They landed safely and were taken prisoner by Bulgarian and German forces.

The raid on Sofia was made up of 60 B-24 Liberator bombers. The Allied aircraft destroyed 87 buildings in the vicinity of the Central Railway Station, killing 5 people and wounding 29. Bulgarian fighter planes shot down two bombers, losing one aircraft to escorting American fighters.

Liberator Number 22, piloted by Dragisha M. Stanisavljevich, was shot down along with  Liberator 42-41018, “Earthquake “, piloted by G.W. Gore.

The crew of B-24 Liberator, 42-73137, Number 22, shot down November 24, 1943 over Sofia, Bulgaria, consisted of: Stanisavljevich, Dragisha M.  Pilot, Yelich, Millosh M. Co-pilot, Milloykovich, Zhivko T. Navigator, also known as Milloy, Joe T., Vecherina, Dinko N. Bombardier, Timothiyevich, Miodrag M. Engineer, Halapa, Ivan M. Radio, Benderach, Vaso B. Gunner, Lakich, Ognyan I. Gunner, Korosha, Ivan V. Gunner, and the American Gunner, Cale, George.

The crew parachuted outside the town of Bogomila, in central Macedonia, west of Veles, which was then occupied and annexed by Bulgaria. Bulgarian and German troops apprehended them. They were taken to the railroad station in the town. The Germans put the pilot, Captain Dragisha Stanisavljevic, the radio operator Sgt. Ivan Halapa, and gunner Vaso Benderach on a train south to Prilep and turned them over to Bulgarian forces. Zhivko Milloykovich, Sgt. Miodrag Timotijevich, Lt. Ognyan Lakich remained in the Bogomila guard house. They were transported by rail to the prison in Prilep the following day. The rest of the crew members were picked thereafter. They were moved to Skopje and then to a Bulgarian military prison in Sofia, the capital. In January, 1944, they were transferred to the Shumen POW camp in northeastern Bulgaria. Their treatment in prison in Sofia was not as difficult as when they were moved to Shumen, where they subsisted on water and bean soup and freezing temperatures in winter. There were 450 American POWs by September, 1944 in the camp. After the Soviet Red Army advance into the Balkans, Bulgaria was forced to surrender and switch sides. The airmen were incarcerated from November 24, 1943 to September 10, 1944, when they were released to the U.S. Consul.

Liberator Number 23 was again a part of a bombing run against Sofia. During this mission, the plane was pursued by 15 Messerschmitt fighters. Gunner Dusan Lazarevic shot down one Bulgarian fighter.

On December 23, Number 21 was shot down by German fighter planes over Germany. There were no survivors. Major Dusan Milojevic was part of this bomber crew. An American navigator, Levie Vause, Jr., was also on board. German Messerschmitt fighters attacked the plane, which lacked P-38 fighters to protect it, and were able to shoot it down. The Liberator was seen heading nose down with no parachutes visible. Its propeller had been shot off.

At first, B-24 Liberator and B-17 Flying Fortress bombers flew missions into the interior of Germany without fighter escorts. The slow and heavily-loaded bombers were vulnerable targets for German fighter planes and flak from anti-aircraft batteries. Long-range fighters were subsequently added to the formations to provide protection for the exposed bombers.

On December 19, planes 21 and 23 participated in the first bombing run against Germany, targeting the Messerschmitt plant in Augsburg in Bavaria in southern Germany northwest of Munich.

The Liberators typically departed in the morning carrying 2,300 gallons of fuel and 10 bombs, flying over Italian territory in a northward descent, crossing the Alps. They dropped 500-pound bombs on the Messerschmitt aircraft factory in Augsburg, Germany. Up to 30 German fighters attacked the planes, made up of 10 to 12 Messerschmitt ME 110s and 10 to 12 Messerschmitt ME 109s and Focke-Wulfe Fw 190s. A report stated: “AA – heavy and very accurate. Very large bursts.” A 98th Bomb Group operations summary stated: “Three B-24s probably shot down, most planes holed, at least 7 men wounded and 1 man killed.”

In the December 19, 1943 Augsburg raid, 42-73089, Liberator Number 21, piloted by Dushan Milloyevich, was shot down. Liberator 42-41175, Sad Sack, piloted by D.P. Rice, was brought down by enemy fighters. Liberator 41-11779, Lil Abner, piloted by E.D. Thurman, crash landed at the base.

The crew of B-24, 42-73089, Number 21, consisted of: Milloyevich, Dushan Z. Pilot, Mucich, Dushan M. Pilot/Co-pilot, Stefanovich, Borislav V. Bombardier, pilot Dragoljub Jeremic, Intihar, Franyo F. Engineer, Tseray, Eduard S. Radio Operator, Lazarevich, Dushan S. Gunner, Ishich, Patar A. Gunner, Vidoykovich, Momchillo V. Gunner, Ognyenovich, Yovan E. Gunner. The one American who was on board the plane was Vause, Jr., Levie E. Navigator.

The ranks of the Yugoslav detachment were gradually depleted. In March, 1944, one Yugoslav crew member, Momcilo Markovic, a Bombardier, left the bomber group. Three others, Jovan Pesic, Nedeljko Pajic, and Milos Marinovic, left to join the Yugoslav Communist Partisan forces led by Josip Broz Tito. Four Slovenians from the RAF joined the detachment to shore up the depleted crews.

On March 24, Number 20 avoided a midair collision with another plane due to poor visibility because of dense cloud formations. A gunner was forced to bail out. After this near debacle, another crew member quit the detachment.

The detachment suffered another casualty in an attack on a target in Austria. Bombardier-gunner Bogdan M. Madjarevic was killed on May 24, 1944 during a bombing mission against an aircraft factory in Wiener Neustadt, Austria.

On June 16, Liberator Number 20 attacked the Apollo Oil Refinery in Bratislava, Slovakia, an independent state created by and allied to Germany under President Jozef Tiso. Germany controlled and modernized the production at the plant, known as Apolka, where diesel fuel and oil were refined to produce fuels to supply the German armed forces. Located on the left bank of the Danube River, it was attacked by waves of U.S. bombers, destroying 80% of the facility. It was reported that 176 workers and civilians were killed.

After the bombing was completed, the group was attacked by 40 enemy aircraft. Four were shot down, including one by Lt. Vuko Sijakovic of Liberator 20. Sijakovic, an Engineer, had been a pilot in the Royal Yugoslav Air Force until 1941, when he escaped capture by German troops by fleeing to Egypt with several other officers.

Disaster struck in the next bombing run. In the bombing mission on Lobau, Austria, on August 22, 1944, 42-73085, Liberator Number 20, piloted by Blagoye N. Radosavlyevich, collided with Liberator 44-40502, Bessa Me Mucho, commanded by Marshall N. Stickel, Jr. Another Liberator bomber, 44-40330, Hardway Ten, commanded by C. Andrew, crash landed during the same mission. Vuko Sijakovic was killed in the crash.

The crew of the American-staffed Liberator 44-40502 consisted of: 1/LT Stickel, Marshall N Jr., CPL Brancato, Stephen V., CPL Edwards, Horace P., CPL Jones, Robert L., CPL Catron, William H., 1/LT Good, Robert P., 2/LT Johnston, James L., CPL Newton, Lawrence D., 2/LT Scott, Douglas, and 2/LT Smith, Charles W.

The mission had originated from Bari AFB in Italy on August 22, 1944. The bombing target was Vienna but the accident occurred over Yugoslavia over Croatian territory.

The Yugoslav air crew commanded by Captain Radosavljevic took part in the aerial assault on underground oil storage tanks near Lobau, east of Vienna. It was the 200th mission of the 512th Squadron. It was the 35th combat mission for the Yugoslav Liberator 20 crew.

The B 24 Liberator, 44-40502, known as Bessa Me Mucho, under the command of American 1/LT Marshall N. Stickel, was struck over the target by several heavy shots. As a result, the damaged plane fell behind the formation. The leader of the bomber group took evasive measures to aid the crippled bomber. The other planes reduced their speed and engine power and began a descent. As they were approaching the Adriatic coast, Stickel radioed the Yugoslav Liberator to determine if they were over Allied-controlled territory. He could no longer control the flight or direction of the stricken plane. Captain Radosavljevic had his Navigator Captain Pavlovic radio back that they were exiting Axis air space. The two bombers were at a height of 12,800 feet. Liberator 31 pulled up slightly and slid to the starboard wing.

The right wing and propellers of the American bomber cut the fuselage and tail of the Yugoslav Liberator. It also broke the left wing of the bomber. The bombers crashed 12 miles northwest of Sinj, east of the village of Kijevo, south of Knin, in the Axis-allied Independent State of Croatia.

Two men were able to parachute out of the planes, one from each plane. The remaining crew members of both planes died in the crash. Yugoslav tail gunner 2nd Lt. Vojin Stojkovic parachuted to safety by escaping from the tail section.

He landed on the Dinara Mountain range separating Croatia from Bosnia-Hercegovina. He suffered a leg injury during the fall. Yugoslav Partisan guerrillas were able to locate him and transport him to Vis Island which was under Partisan control and defended by British naval vessels. He reported that he saw another flier parachute in the area west of the Cetine River. He heard gun shots. He concluded that he was killed. He was informed that he had been killed by German and Croatian gunfire. After 19 days, he returned to the base in Italy in September.

A local resident, Filip Soldic, who was seven years old at the time, witnessed the crash of Liberator 31 as it fell into a vineyard. He recounted the crash in “Sjecanje na poginule clanove posade Liberatora br:20 (Remembrance of the deceased Liberator crew members of Number 20)”, Ferata, August 22, 2014. The crew was killed instantly in the explosion. He did see, however, a member of the crew parachute out 12 yards from the plane.

The U.S. government relocated the remains of the crew members from both aircraft after the war. The remains of the Liberator 20 crew were buried in a cemetery in Zasiok. A part of the plane was also preserved. A memorial plaque erected on the site read: “Returning after an operation in the battle against fascism during the war. Died: 22 VIII. 1944. Airmen of the allied army of Yugoslav descent. Bobek Anton, Vuko Sijakovic, Radosavljevic Major and four other unknowns. This memorial was raised by the Alliance of NOR fighters of the Sinj Municipality on January 23, 1958.” This area was later flooded by the adjoining Perucky Lake.

The crew of Liberator 20 consisted of Captain Radosavlyevich, Blagoye N. Pilot, Voolich, Borivoje G. Co-pilot, Pavlovich, Slobodan M. Navigator, Tsrvenkovich, Obrad D. Bombardier, Shiyakovich, Vooko V.  Engineer, Zhivanovich, Toma M. Radio, Parapatich, Boris K. Arm, Stoykovich, Voyin P. Gunner, Bobek, Milutin A. Nose Turret, and Trampush, Emil A. Waist Gunner.

On August 27, 1944, Lt. Colonel Richard Fellows, the commanding officer of the 376th Heavy Bomb Group (H) bestowed a commendation on the Yugoslavian Air Force Detachment”

“Headquarters- 376th Bomb Group (H) AAF

It is desired to commend the Royal Yugoslavian Air Force detachment, attached to the 512th squadron of the 376th Bomb Group (Heavy) and the 15th AF for outstanding performance of duty in action in strategic support of allied forces in the Mediterranean theater.

From November 1943 to August 1944- four (4) crews made up of forty (40) Officers and Enlisted men forming the Detachment flew regular and frequent combat missions attacking vital enemy installations; exhibiting the greatest bravery, stamina and skill completing eighty eight (88) successful missions. During this period the Detachment lost three (3) of their B-24 aircraft, and sacrificed three of their four crews, all lost over enemy targets. The Royal Yugoslavian Air Force Detachments by its actions has constantly given its utmost in devotion to duty for the allied cause, and will always be worthy of emulation.

R.W. Fellows, Lt. Col.

Air Corps, Commanding

Captain Vojislav N. Skakich presented three officers of the U.S. Army Air Force, Major General Nathan Farragut Twining, commander of the 15th U.S. Army Air Force, Brigadier General Charles F. Born of the 15th USAAF, and Brigadier General Hugo P. Rush, commander of the 47th Wing, with wings of the Yugoslav Royal Air Force on October 3, 1944.

In November, four members left the group to join the Partisans in Yugoslavia. Two Slovenians also left the group.

On November 13, the airmen were ordered by the U.S. Army to travel to Cairo where they were to be incorporated within the armed forces of the new Communist regime of Yugoslavia. Ivan Halapa, Miodrag Timotijevic, Dinko Vecherina, and Ivan Korosha followed the order.  Skakich and the remaining fliers refused. They continued on bombing missions until 1945 when after their 51st flight they no longer had to engage in combat.

Three out of the four Yugoslav Liberators were lost, two shot down and one destroyed in a collision with another Liberator.  Only Liberator Number 23 survived the war. The Yugoslav airmen had flown a total of 88 missions for the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II from 1943 to 1945.

By 1945, the Yugoslav detachment flew back to Cairo then returned to San Pancrazio in Italy. They refused to join the Yugoslav Partisans and remained in limbo until August, 1945, when they were inducted into the U.S. Army.

In October, they flew to the U.S. In July, 1947, they were able to attain U.S. citizenship after a U.S. Congressional bill was passed. As documented by Barrett Tillman in Forgotten Fifteenth: The Daring Airmen Who Crippled Hitler’s War Machine (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2014), six airmen had successful careers in the U.S. Air Force. Vojislav Skakich and Milos Jelic rose to the rank of Colonel.

The airmen of the Yugoslav Detachment played a role in the Allied bombing campaign against Axis targets during World War II. The group was created by Peter II as part of the Yugoslav Royal Air Force to support the Allied operations and to provide material assistance to Draza Mihailovich and the royalist Yugoslav government forces under his command on the ground in Yugoslavia. The latter objective, however, was not realized. At the 1943 Tehran Conference, the Allied Powers would acknowledge the Communist guerrilla forces under Josip Broz Tito as the sole and legitimate resistance group in Axis-occupied Yugoslavia. This created a split within the crewmen. Some did join the Partisans. But the others, who had been members of the Yugoslav Royal Air Force, refused to return to a Communist Yugoslavia under Tito. They refused to join the Communist Partisan forces. Instead, they sought and found refuge in the U.S. While their efforts contributed to the ultimate Allied victory, they also witnessed Tito assume power and establish a Communist regime in Yugoslavia. The monarchy would be abolished and the pre-war royalist government replaced. They would not return to Yugoslavia. Instead, the airmen would find refuge and success in the U.S.